Thursday, 16 February 2017

The secularisation of Satan

Examining how Alan Grant and Arthur Ranson's portrayal of Satan is informed by the shifting depiction and ideas of the devil in pop culture, and the secularisation of evil

'Once I was Lucifer- bright morningstar. Well I think I was'

It comes from above. Encased in a vast rune-marked stone, a collision with an exploding spacecraft pushes the mysterious object's trajectory towards Earth. From the dust and flame of the crash-landing rises a colossal, winged figure: the devil. This is the premise of Alan Grant's and Arthur Ranson's Satan, where as bloodshed and madness engulf the land the psychic empath Judge Anderson must determine whether the alien being is indeed the devil, whilst pondering the ramifications of his existence on a metaphysical, spiritual level; and, of course, if and how the he can be overcome.

Reading about something is different to seeing it, so the reader's first visual encounter with Ranson's Satan is significant: his appearance alone allows us to glean certain symbolic inferences. He is a gleaming white giant, his horns molten marble: bubbled growths that extend from around his head like an incomplete crown-like halo. His eyes are searing fire-filled sockets, at once flat and bottomless; his mouth a sardonic scarlet smear. That he is represented by only these two colours is significant: red is connoted to danger, anger, and passion; while white is most traditionally bound with depictions of light, goodness, and purity. On the surface at least, he does not appear monstrous, his overall visage more reminiscent of Greek sculpture, an evolved gargoyle conveying specific ideologies; Ranson marrying mythological threads of angelic derivation, a fallen favourite, with currents of temptation and manipulation. His wings further reinforce those juxtaposing parallels: again harking to Lucifer, yet their leathery texture provides a contrast to the image of untouchable deity. They're organic, animalistic, binding him by nature to those he aspires to lord over. On initial approach he is undeniably impressive; Anderson feels 'physically sick in his presence, awed by his beauty.' He wants people to be seduced by his majesty, of how he looks. Ranson's exceptional draughtsmanship, with his lines and realism rooted in a traditionally-illustrative style, serves to anchor and add weight to this portrayal.

Upon arrival, Satan announces himself repeatedly, beading together a litany of names given to the devil. 'I am the Adversary... He Who Opposes. I am the Serpent crawling in Eden-- The Dragon-of Old--The Midnight Goat. I am the Prince of Lies... the Lord of Deceit... Betrayer Supreme. I am Diablos, and you must whisper my name!' He quotes from the Book of Amos and then pokes fun at the language 'Did I say that?... quite poetic in a bleak sort of way.' This meta-defensive, mocking rhetoric becomes a pattern throughout, a sneery finger poking at the narratives credited to him. But under the theatricality, there is also pride and assertion: there is power in names and he embraces the opportunity to claim the many bestowed upon him; to claim the history with which each is associated, the dread they inspire. The belief in these names and all that they encompass, is what powers him. It is the belief in his existence; in his influence. It help feed his myth -and so feeds him. It's how he defines himself. Facts are true whether you believe them or not, but faith is true irrespective of the integrity of the subject in which it is invested. From the offset, then, Grant has the devil toying with who he is; the repetition of names and faux-reluctance a first hint at an underlying question, if not doubt.

Accompanying this passage is a snaking full-page spread in which Ranson charts a visual history of devil interpretations encompassing shifting literary and theological concepts: here is Dante's and Dore's frozen colossus, a pentagram-inscribed Baphomet, the serpent himself, Pan, the dragoned Diablos, a pitchfork-wielding imp, the morning-star.

This presents the reader with a wad of cultural heft that acts to reinforce Satan's identity, whilst simultaneously highlighting its constant construction; the fragmentisation of a monolithic personification. Via the use of these references, Ranson and Grant draw attention to Satan's bluster, a performance that goes beyond pretending to be affected by crosses and incantations, or setting aflame a group of religious diplomats with an imperious look. His identity seems overly pieced together, too pat. With his physical presence on Earth causing wide-spread insanity and destruction, and the Judges at a loss as to what to throw at him next, this is what gives Anderson an in. She capitalises on that chink of doubt and insecurity. For an idea to have strength it requires belief, and it is humanity's faith in Satan's stature as this immense demonic force that allows him the refuge of a power fantasy. It's preferable to Satan to believe himself the big bad- it gives him billing. And it protects him from the reality of himself. As Anderson discovers, at his core he fears the cost of that mantle. He feels the weight of his actions. Her telepathic connection sees a scared and lost child sat huddled amidst vast fields of piled corpses, crying, 'It wasn't me honest!' Where earlier Satan leafs though mankind's history, revelling in the war and bloodshed he's inspired since his imprisonment, here are shards of guilt and despair, of loneliness. At some level, he is distant from the very idea of himself he ouwardly embraces, rejecting culpability.

Like Dante's Lucifer, he is caught in his own trap: stuck in the ice at the bottom of the ninth circle equally as powerless as the other sinners, instead of being a free and powerful being. It fits in with the theological notion that Hell is indeed self-inflicted.

Grant's and Ranson's portrayal of repression, trauma, and vulnerability is informed by decades of literature that increasingly drew parallels of Satan's standing with that of mankind's, specifically the similarities in nature. If the 15th and 16th centuries solidified his position as "the personification of evil, seen as the great enemy of Christ, the Church, and mankind: a horned, bestial, furry figure," the age of enlightenment in popularising reason began to consider the story of Lucifer's rebellion with greater nuance and depth. But it wasn't the diminishing thrall of Christianity alone that distilled the devil; as an increasingly secular society began to explore alternative causes of evil, the notion of good and bad as rigid pillars waned. Science and psychology made inroads in demystifying various medical conditions, with focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment. On a wider scale, this loosening translated into complexity of character; an acceptance of flaws.

Thus this resulted in not only more sophisticated representations of the devil, but literal and figurative shifts of him as a bestial creature who is the enemy of man, to a more human and humanoid figure (most seminal among these was John Milton's Paradise Lost, which essayed Lucifer as a defiant and charismatic anti-hero granting him new perspective, and effectively reinventing modern conceptions along the way). He is inherently human in his rebellion; his flaws of pride and jealousy are familiar emotions. If all reactions stem from an action, then causality is applicable. The devil/evil is a reaction or direct effect- to the concepts of god/good. He is angry and hurt and wants to stick it to both God and man as those who have hurt him. He doesn't simply want to see mankind fall and turn, he wants to see mankind fall and turn to spite God, to prove his long-standing point over and over; 'This is what you chose over me, this is what you cast me out for. Look how weak and easy they are. Look how I can make them turn from you.' And he knows so well because he's the same. It's one long lashing out. He has motive. He can be understood. Satan became sympathetic.

If Faust and Chaucer seem a reach today, no matter; we've seen the devil as everyone from Tim Curry to Elizabeth Hurley to Al Pacino; as an animated robot in Futurama; as a used car salesmen in Reaper; a discontented Bowie/James Dean-esqe figure in Mike Carey's Lucifer; as a goat in Robert Eggers' The Witch. These incarnations embody the human character and experience: from comedic relief to tragedy, delight to desolation, as canny, seductive, triumphant. So not only are Satan's impulses and emotions known to us, repetitious cultural exposure of the devil as a personification of id took root, disseminating the potency of Satan as the ultimate murky, sinister bogeyman; an intravenous desensitisation realigning the devil as normal, and fundamentally, as something less adversarial. 

Key to this is the de-weaponising of Satan's own power, and the shift from vengeful anger (an emotion people intrinsically recoil from) to misunderstood everyman, done over by the big guy. Few things reconcile people as much as shared resentment towards those deemed superior. In theory, Satan became specific, smaller, more successful, undergoing an ideological transformation accessible to all, irrespective of religious denomination. As the representation of the flaws of man he is ironically omnipresent. If God is within us then why shouldn't the devil be, too? He is of us, and thus easier to understand. And when we understand something, we no longer fear it. The devil becomes knowable, and knowledge is power. If you don't have it, then someone has it over you (Those qualities now instead rest heavily with God. God is powerful. God is knowing, yet unknowable. God in his judgement is man's adversary.). In knowing Satan, we aim to assert power over him, and therein lies his ultimate contemporary seduction: that he is one of us. He is legion: he is us all.

It is this evolution that Grant and Ranson's 1996 portrayal charts. Their is no definitiveness to their Satan: he exists within the multitudes. He exists as an individual entity and a symbolic quantification of evil, and as such has his own life in addition to those that are thrust upon him. Grant and Ranson provide us with literal and allegorical deconstruction of this once proud and magnificent being who, in the depths of hurt, embraces the narratives and labels heaped upon him as a form of consolation. A creature who opts to mounts these projected stories as both reassurance and defence rather than confront the reality of himself, because 'to be weak is to be miserable'. He still matters, he is still worth contending with. Grant and Ranson's Satan is lost deep within those structures, at first purposefully and then for survival. It's no longer clear which came first: being called a monster, or the being of the monster. The parallel drawn is of a superficial inversion of man: a beastly exterior concealing the confusion within, as opposed to a benign exterior concealing the ugliness inside. 

Grant and Ranson present Satan as someone who humans require to be separate, marked by contorted difference in order to fit with our idea, our need, of a looming, evil 'other.' Like a fire that never lacks for tinder, Satan is a golem brought to life by our pain, horrors, and weaknesses, created to cover our complicity. He gains power and import via the oxygen of fear. Not the fear of the unknown, but the fear of those deeds, that culpability, returning home.

"Nobody makes us bad. We get to choose between good and evil and we're all responsible for our choice. Even the devil.' 

(An early version of this essay was published in Critical Chips)

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

James Stokoe's Alien: Dead Orbit, a preview

Announced in late 2016, James Stokoe's 4-issue Alien mini-series is fast-approaching. As both a big Stokoe and Alien fan, it's one of the comics I've been looking forward to most this year. Stokoe is a big Alien fan; he'd been working on comics ideas for an Alien story in his own time as far as 6-7 years back when Brandon Graham shared some of those pencilled pages on his livejournal (shown below). It takes a while, but I like to think that as with both his Godzilla comic and his Galactus piece, which resulted in The Half Century War and work with Marvel, it takes a few years or so for the concept to gestate before some sensible comics person taps him to do the trade-marked thing. You can have immense passion for a thing and still not be good at it, so it's lucky Stokoe has talent by the bucket-load. I'm excited to see that hyper-detailed art and those mad gradients on ol' double-jaws.

Anyway, here's what I wrote about Dead Orbit for the Guardian in a comics preview last month: "Many licensed comic properties hum unremarkably along, but every now and again publishers wrangle a pairing worthy of notice. Such is the case for Stokoe’s upcoming Aliens mini-series, Dead Orbit. He is a rare cartoonist, gifted not only in technical ability, but also in eliciting fresh depth and pathos from popular characters without straying from their essence. With Ridley Scott releasing Alien: Covenant in May, this could well be a banner year for everybody’s favourite xenomorph."

Although after seeing the Covenant trailer, I'm having second thoughts. My high hopes for Dead Orbit, however, remain intact. There's only 2 things I consider myself fannish about, in that I actually *care* and have specific ideas about how they should or shouldn't be treated: Batman is one and Alien stories are another. With Alien, less creatures work better, a lone one works best. Sure, there's only so many times you can use this to trade on awe and fear, but unless the story facilitates it, using swarms of xenomorphs for no purpose other than numbers and the supposed 'cool' shock value of it is ineffective. The xeonomorph is an iconic design, but has become so distilled in power. I have the Dark Horse Alien omnibuses and many of the comics explore how the xenomorphs are captured and integrated as resources, which never made sense to me considering the whole perfect organism emphasis. Ultimately, where I stand on monsters is some of them you just cannot fight. And that's it. Which should be the case for Alien: you can kill them, and wrangle enough time to survive, but the bottom line is: they will get you. Anyway, enough of my incoherent ramblings; I'm confident Stokoe will do a good job as he's able to a) draw and colour magically, and b) marry his own sensibilities to character and story without compromising the integrity of either. I'm yet to read something of his I don't like.

Here's the official Dead Orbit blurby thing, and you can find some preview pages of the opening issue further down this post:

Dead Orbit finds Wascylewsk, an engineering officer, trapped in a space station after a horrific accident. Wascylewsk is forced to use all available tools—a timer, a utility kit, and his wits—to survive an attack from the deadliest creature known to man. James Stokoe (Wonton Soup, Orc Stain) writes and illustrates the series. Geof Darrow (The Shaolin Cowboy, The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot) will provide a variant cover for the first issue. The first issue is out April 26th.

Interior pages from the first issue of Dark Orbit; for more, visit Paste who have an exclusive multi-page preview. 

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Review: Mickey's Craziest Adventures

Mickey's Craziest Adventures by Lewis Trondheim (writer), Nicolas Keramidas (artist), Brigitte Findakly (colourist) [IDW]

An anonymous introduction to this book tells a tale of a bored Trondheim and leisurely Keramidas at a car boot sale, stumbling upon the treasure of rare, 'lost' Mickey Mouse comics serialised in one-page instalments in the 60's. Eager to share their find, Trondheim and Keramaidas worked to restore these comics, reproducing them for the very first time in this collection. Or so the story goes...

A mouse of many guises, here Mickey is a policeman (plain clothes, of course), thrown together with Donald Duck to retrieve the shrink ray and scaled-down gold stolen from Donald's Uncle Scrooge; Donald's the reluctant civilian, forced along on the escapade due to the magnitude of debt he owes Scrooge. The focus isn't whodunnit but adventure, an opportunity for Trondheim and Keramidas to let loose the characters on a breathless journey of skirmishes against an ever-changing backdrop of landscapes, sending up the globe-trotting chase with aplomb even as they reaffirm it. Stock adventure situations are whistled through: a plane crash-landing in a jungle, discovery of numerous lost ancient cities heaving with gold, stumbling upon Atlantis *and* a land of dinosaurs ('I had not noticed, but all der dinosaurs haff feathers! ... If der mobile phone was invented, we could spread der news!' exclaims Dr Einmug), a voyage to space. To the Trondheim fan, poking fun at the silliness of genre-conventions whilst subverting them is familiar fare, and it generally works both because its tertiary to the larger concern of creating an entertaining comic and because it's done with affection.

Playful effort has gone into the overlaying narrative of the 'lost' strips: replicating the dotted effect of offset printing and spot colouring, torn pages, stains and yellowing, missing pages (strips jump from chapter 24 to 27). Deliberation means the imaginary plot gaps don't lead to an indiscernible mess, instead paralleling the incomprehensible leaps such stories often make. By and large these elements are balanced enough to not feel contrived, yet there remain passages that are simply unengaging. This isn't a book with deep characterisation, emotional investment, or plot; its purpose is fun. There are a few good gags: a thwarted Mickey unsuccessfully attempting to buy modes of transport from various pragmatic kids in a non-chase; a monkey stealing Mickey's suitcase for it to come open and reveal multiple pairs of those famous red pants as its sole contents.  But essentially there's only one joke. The construct of deconstruction begins to feel thin.

Similarly, patchy commitment to emulating a retro palette appears to have an adverse effect on Brigitte Findakly's colouring. Throughout most of the book, her colouring is wonderful: intuitive, earthy, and interesting. There's a lovely strip in which Mickey and Donald are riding a flying mushroom island (somehwat ridiculously piloting it like the balloon house in Up), and the contrast of the teal-and-white fungi against a mustard sky is gorgeous. In another wide panel, the rich blues and browns of a meteor-shower hurtling to Earth provide it an additional foreboding frisson. But then there are flat, insipid pages which the eye passes over with nothing of attention to anchor the gaze. Since the limitations of 60's colouring aren't adhered to anyway, and Findackly is clearly capable, this in-between wavering seems a poor directive.

Keramidas art is well-judged; carrying movement and expression that feeds into the pacing without overwhelming it and there's a nice, level elasticity that comes to the fore now and again. It has pleasurable appeal, and he's able to hit a tonal appropriateness that evokes a stylistic era without it coming off as mimicry. Amongst it all, his textures and shading are a real highlight, adding life and body to everything from rocks, plants, clothes, caves.

I've never read any Mickey Mouse comics previously, and bought this book because I was curious about Glénat bringing on names such as Trondheim, Cossey, Regis Loisel and others, and what those pairings would produce. Mickey's Craziest Adventures is a mostly solid affair and while it goes through the motions well enough, there's an unshakeable feeling that it's missing something vital. Something to make you care. Soul, or a heart, perhaps.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Hourly comics day 2017

February 1st means hourly comics day, an event which sees participating artists produce comics every hour over the course of the day. That format isn't one that's strictly adhered to, considering many people are working throughout the day, but the variation in approach is another of the things that makes the comics enjoyable. Most cartoonists choose to stick to autobiographical comics, with a running narration of their day and the inevitable meta thoughts on the process itself. For comics fans, it means there's always a treasure trove of free comics to enjoy, and this year -for me, at least- the influx of art on the day was a welcome and affirming respire from the unrelenting onslaught of current events. I've gathered some of my favourites below, with links embedded in the artist names- click through to read all the comics in full; there's a few that will lead to Twitter and Instagram that might require a bit of scrolling to get at.

Carta Monir:

Steve Wolfhard Part 1, part 2:

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Upcoming books of interest

There's a couple of new manga series starting English-language release in February that have my interest piqued. The first is Kei Sanbe's Erased (Boku Dake ga Inai Machi), published by Yen Press. Originally serialised in Kadokawa Shoten's Young Ace magazine between 2012 and 2016, the 7-volume story has undergone both anime and live-action film adaptations. Erased follows Satoru Fujinuma, manga artist and part-time pizza delivery guy, who possesses a mysterious ability that sends him back in time moments before a life-threatening incident, giving him the opportunity to prevent it from happening. The occurrence of a traumatic event in Satoru's present propels him eighteen years into the past, to when he was still in elementary school, and on the cusp of a kidnapping incident that took the lives of three of his childhood friends.

I'm not wild on the 'time-travel to change significant events' trope (although, as with anything, it depends on *how* its done) but the mystery element here makes me hope there's going to be something more going on. It's appealing to me also on the grounds that it's a wrapped-up, finite series (Yen Press will be publishing the books in 2 hardback omnibus editions), so I know what I'm committing to, while the optimist in me likes to think that limitation is indicative of the author's specific vision and therefore tighter plotting... The pages I've seen look pretty good: I'd not previously come across Kei Sanbe's work, and she has a very clean style that's a nice amalgam of cutesy and realistic. 

The second manga that caught my eye and the first volume of which releases in early February is the uniquely-titled Girl from the other side: Siuil, a Run (Totsukuni no Shoujo) by Nagabe [Seven Seas]. From what I can tell, this is a fairly new ongoing series, with volumes 1 and 2 published in Japan last year. I have this on pre-order, by virtue of that beautiful cover alone: the pairing of the smiling little girl and the tall, horned figure strolling through a woodland setting is intriguing, as is the appeal of the fine-lined art style (there's a Scandinavian, European vibe to it) in which it's rendered. I've been looking at some of the interior pages (shown below) and though they range from sparse to more full, they're atmospheric and attractive.

A magical fantasy set in a world that's split between the realms of Inside and Outside, residents of each realm are told never to cross over to the other side, for fear of great catastrophe. Somewhere beyond all this is a vacant village home only to a young girl named Shiva and her demonic guardian known only as "Teacher." 'Although the two are forbidden to touch, they seem to share a bond that transcends their disparate appearances. But when Shiva leaves Teacher's care to seek out her grandmother, the secret behind her mysterious living arrangement comes to light.' Each volume in the series will be released with a textured matte finish cover and will include at least one full-colour insert.

Mathilde Vangheluwe has done a comic with everyone's favourite Latvian comics outfit, kuš! Newly released on January 27th, Vangheluwe is one of my favourite cartoonists, and I'm yet to read something by her I didn't like. I pre-ordered this as soon as it was announced, and I wish she put out more. Joining the set of a hip late late talk show, 'Spectacular Vermacular' sees famous Hollywood star Vlad the Cat remembers the glorious old days, in a bittersweet tale of an overwhelming Hollywood career. A new, full-colour comic from Mathilde is a good way to start the year. 

The Interview by Manuele Fior [Fantagraphics]
The Interview is Fior's fifth graphic novel, and the second of the award-winning Italian authors works to be translated into English (Fantagraphics also published his '5000 Kilometres Per Second' last year). As beautifuly painted as 5000 KM was, it was also rather conventional, and I'm holding out for something beyond that here. The Interview is set in a future Italy of 2048, and brings together a seemingly familiar scenario: a fifty-something psychologist with a failing marriage and his young, free-spirited patient, Dora. It's the backdrop that prevents this falling into cliche. Strange bright triangles have appeared in the sky, purportedly bearing mysterious messages from an extraterrestrial civilisation. Messages that Dora claims she can parse with her telepathic abilities...

How exquisite do these pages look?

Speaking of Fior, he's recently done an A3 (I think) foldout poster comic, semi-inspired by Charles Gleyre's The Deluge. That looks okay, too. 

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Bits 'n' Bobs

Bits 'n' bobs

Quick recommendation: Clear Blue Tomorrows

I wanted to point people towards 'Clear Blue Tomorrows' by Fabien Vehlmann, Bruno Gazzotti, and Ralph Meyer, published in September last year, but I feel a lot of people tend to sit on Cinebook. I've written previously about my appreciation of Vehlmann as a writer, and a common facet across the comics he produces with various people, is the space he gives the story and reader to swill around in. Clear Blue Tomorrows is the kind of book writers love: in a totalitarian technological future, engineer Nolan Ska travels back in time in a bid to stop the global corporate dictatorship of F.G. Wilson from ever happening. His plan? Help the man who rules mercilessly in the future to fulfil his first dream of becoming a successful novelist (he's unable to kill him due to an embedded chip that prevents all citizens from harming Wilson) . 

It's a engaging read, made almost compulsive by the frightening state of western politics. There is no special event that makes Wilson who he is; he's just a horrible, shitty person. He has no writing talent, so Nolan applies himself to the cause, aware of what lies ahead if Wilson's path isn't diverted. He keeps at it for years, writing books and screenplays, taking no credit, while Wilson remains irredeemable: thankless, arrogant, demanding, and stupid, despite having success after success handed to him on a plate. So Nolan gives up. He's already a certain age, and having travelled back decades, he'll die before the bad stuff begins to go down. He decides to cut his losses and enjoy his life. After years of sacrifice, he chooses selfishness. The future can take care of itself. 

In essence, Clear Blue Tomorrows is less an exploration of the characteristics of the opposing and opposed, and more an examination of Nolan's psyche. If the 'bad' are absolute in their unchangeable awfulness and beyond the reach of any reason, the burden of responsibility -to act-, shifts to the 'good' who become complex and compromised. How does a 'good' person respond to that wall of relentlessness? What do we expect of Nolan, and of ourselves? Ensconced in his bubble, the impact of Wilson's rule and the memory of those it will devastate begins to fade. The idea of sacrificing -to no guaranteed outcome- for something which isn't going to affect him loses appeal. In this manner, Nolan comes to represent the white moderate, ever reluctant to involve themselves in matters which may lead to a loss of their own position of comfort. Do you stop trying because it's hard; stop trying because it's not working out as you expected; stop trying because change is slow? To what extent duty, and at what cost? How much do you do, and how do you know it's enough? Does stopping mean giving up? And lurking somewhere at the centre of it all, is a whole separate discussion on the limitations of non-violent resistance in a time engulfed by violence. 

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Review double: the ills of apathy and fugue

Irmina by Barbara Yelin, published by Self Made Hero

Barbara Yelin's Irmina, ostensibly the story of an 'ordinary German' woman's life as Hitler comes into power, functions equally as a timely study of the white moderate. In his 1963 Birmigham address, Martin Luther King expressed his disappointment at the inherent apathy of those who would consider themselves allies to the causes of justice, 'those 'more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice... Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.'

And so it goes for Irmina, as reduced means and an increasingly tumultuous political landscape force her to leave her studies and board in England, and leave behind her friend Howard, to return to Germany. Initially determined to go back, her gradual capitulation and marriage to an SS officer curiously lack any qualms or fear; a tunnel-vision sense of self-preservation that erases all else. Juxtaposed against the suffering of the Jewish people and Howard's existence as a black man in 1930's Britain, Irmina's 'plight' is a difficult concept to sympathise with. She deliberately chooses to ignore what's going on around her in order to survive: a passive choice, but a choice nonetheless. Her belief is she can do nothing, so she does nothing. It is no doubt an easier stance in retrospect, but in a world currently deeply mired in hateful rhetoric and the politics of divisiveness it feels acutely pertinent: what is the point at which intervention is required, and to whom does such responsibilty fall, if not 'ordinary people.'  

Assassination Classroom volume 8, by Yusei Matsui, published by Viz

There reaches a point in many a manga series where a to-date interesting narrative begins to lag and lose momentum. Such is the case in the eighth instalment of Yusei Matsui's Assassination Classroom. Having established the rather bizarre premise of  a strange emoji-faced, tentacled monster threatening to blow up the Earth (having reduced the moon to a sliver), unless he's allowed to teach the students of 'loser' class 3-E at Kunugigaoka Junior High School for a year: a time period within which only the students will be afforded the opportunity to assassinate him. Once funny and affirming, the seeming thrust of the story of demoralised, 'cast aside' students realising their potential via unconventional tutelage is now stretching thin.

'Koro-sensei' -as his students refer to the monster- is relegated to the fringes here, with the students facing down yet another 'outside assassination' threat. The 'Game of Death' trope of infiltrating a building and combating foes level by level provides some entertainment, and Matsui gets in some amusing meta visual digs at the medium, but it's a superficial engagement. His art is adept at comedic and dramatic flourishes, but the action drags somewhat due to an absence of tension: pattern informs the reader that the students will again overcome, it's simply a question of how. And if that's Matsui's intention - to keep the motives of Koro-sensei obscure and use the problem he presents as a means of focusing on the development of his characters, the journey needs to be significantly more interesting than this one.

(originally published in Comic Heroes magazine)

Monday, 18 April 2016

White noise

This is my last post on the blog. I don't really know what to say, so I will just say thank you for the support, and for reading. 

Masume Yoshimoto's Kuma Miko: girl meets bear

I get a lot of enjoyment and affirmation from manga series like My Love Story, Chi's Sweet Home, Yostuba &! and others -they're satisfyingly wholesome and naturally funny, without being too pat or superficial, and seem to focus on character more than anything else. So I'm pretty pleased to discover One Peace Books are publishing a new series, Kuma Miko: Girl Meets Bear by Masume Yoshimoto, this autumn, which looks to be in the same vein. Kuma Miko (which roughly translates to 'bear, miko') is an ongoing manga which originally began serialisation in Japanese magazine Monthly Comic Flapper in May 2013. The comics have, to date, been collected into 5 volumes, the first two of which One Peace will be releasing in English this September and December respectively. 'Machi is 14 years old and has spent her whole life deep in the Touhoku Mountains as a miko (a shrine maiden). Raised alongside a talking bear, Natsu, she knows nothing of modern life. But, she is enthralled with its mysteries and determined to figure them out. Natsu attempts to prepare her for the trials and tribulations she will face entering the fast-paced city in this comical coming of age story of a backwoods girl in Japan.'

If you were wondering about the aspect that sold me on this, the ginormous talking bear was a major factor. Having a ginormous talking bear as a life mentor sounds interesting and unpredictable -and the hugs would be excellent. Also he seems quite relatable, from the pages I've perused (example: see him splayed out, munching enthusiastically, below) yet still quite a bear-y bear, too; not merely a person in bear form. The ability to be both cute and scary is an important one. Is it strange to relate to a bear more than a young girl? The art...I'd be lying if I said I was 100% sold on it, but it doesn't actively work against my preferences and if the storytelling is strong, it'll be an easy enough compromise. It looks pared back but not static or flat, which is what I find very difficult to get into. I want this to be good!

The few manga-to-anime series adaptations I've watched have stuck to the source material very closely, almost panel to frame, so I generally like to spend my time with either one or the other unless each is doing something quite different. I'm going to wait for the books with this, but the anime does look lively and a lot of fun- you can see the opening title sequence here, and some stills and character design sheets, below.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

'Hubert': portrait of the malignant misogyny of man

Hubert by Ben Gijsemans, Jonathan Cape

Viewed through the insipid activities of its titular character, Ben Gijsemans' Hubert is a treatise on the accepted ordinariness of complicit, pervasive socio-cultural misogyny. Hubert spends his days visiting museums, spending hours gazing at pictures of women, taking photographs of paintings and sculptures, then returning home to upload the images onto a computer in order to replicate them himself. He consumes image after image of placid, silent women, absorbing their bodies part by part, their looks, their lack of agency, before cyclically perpetuating it in both literal reproductions and general outlook. 

Gijsemans doesn't question the impact of art on Hubert's thinking and behaviour, as much as he presents it, and ponders its extent. It's an intravenous effect: the permeation of continually repeated imagery, narratives, and ideologies to which Hubert's been exposed since birth: from family, friends, workplace, films, books, advertising, galleries, and beyond. Hubert doesn't seem to have ever thought to challenge or question these mores because to him there is no delineation: this is 'normal.' It's what he's seen around him all his life, so it's real and therefore true. But there is a point where apathy becomes cultivation of ignorance, where you become capable of making choices and, accordingly, accountable for them.

Gijsemans forms an arc of encounters which see Hubert's predilections tested and reach a cusp of possible change. The first is with a young, (silent) beautiful, blonde in the building opposite who he regularly, voyeuristically watches from his window, until she catches him taking pictures of her, and draws the curtains. Then, while at a museum, he's approached by two women, asking him to take their photograph: something he doesn't want to do. His discomfort seems to stem from them simply engaging with him on a superficial level, i.e. talking to him, and the fact that in asking him to take a picture of them, they remain the active participant, retaining control of the image and themselves. On the heels of these rejections and assertions comes a slightly increased cognisance: he notices 2 other men with cameras, one whom he mistakes as surreptitiously taking pictures of him, and the other simply photographing paintings, much as he does. Hubert is disturbed at both potentially becoming the object of a man's gaze (an association which would indicate that, clearly, on some level he recognises the tilt of his own intent), and the idea that he is not alone in his proclivities: he doesn't own or possess these images of women reconstructed for mass consumption.

This series of events leaves him perturbed and unable to draw, leading to the third, most significant encounter. He accepts an invitation for a drink from his neighbour, Mrs Vandermeer, whom we have previously seen him avoid. Both understand that this is a euphemism for sex. Mrs Vandermeer appears to be around his age, confident and smart. When she disrobes and lays in bed, Hubert stands at the door fully clothed, repulsed and again inert. Gijsemans depicts his gaze deconstructing her in small, tight panels of body parts: a breast, a thigh, an arm -much as he deconstructs Manet's Olympia, and finds her wanting. He leaves. He chooses to retreat to his fantasy. Hubert's unhappiness doesn't just derive from his expectations not being met, but his inability to adjust those expectations due to fear. A fear of change, of self-examination. A fear to challenge what he's learnt -directly and otherwise-; a fear of losing the position of comfort in which he lives. His fragility and ugliness would rather ingest and believe in visions of nubile, young, paper women than consider sleeping with a real woman his own age.

One of the most interesting aspects of Hubert is Gijsemans' use of 'fine art' to frame this discussion, more so when coupled with his stylistic choices. There's an inherent irony to drawing in this very beautiful, technically adept way to comment on the role of endemic sexism within art -messages are embraced and dismissed depending on their packaging. Gijsemans' undeniable skill meet established standards that serve to 'legitmise' his work and its concerns. More pertinently, it floats the issue of classism within art. Are we to parse off Hubert a harmless loner, isolated in the noise of modern city life, simply because instead of thumbing through magazines or leering at women in the street, he takes in 'high art' and engages in 'soft' creeping? Does the fact that Hubert likes to watch old, black and white movies excuse his 'watching' and taking unwanted pictures of his neighbour? Is it our interests that set us apart, or our actions? Is it okay for him to violate her privacy in this way because he's 'inspired' by her beauty? Do we align 'nobler' pursuits with noble intentions? What is it, exactly, that makes a pursuit noble?  Are we to associate the perpetuating of sexist ideals only in correlation with 'popular culture' and those who imbibe it -a handing off of base ideas to base mediums and base people? Is one area more culpable in the fostering of these ideologies than another?

By appearances, an educated, healthy, and self-sufficient white man, Hubert may not be viewed as overtly damaging, but he is absolutely part and participant of the mechanism of ubiquitous patriarchy, exemplifying the increasingly germane, contemporary problem of recognising and addressing socially-absorbed malignancy within oneself. Gijsemans surrounds him with a fine-lined, superficially beautiful, but dull brown and grey life that lacks any depth or vibrancy; boxed in by precise, regular panels. Hubert's failure to identify the dangerous nuances he precipitates means he fails, too, to realise that in his particular situation, it is he who ultimately suffers within the bounds of those very same constraints.